After a 20-year hiatus, Roseanne Barr has returned to her infamous alter ego for a reboot of the classic late ’90s sitcom, “Roseanne.” Before the show even premiered, promoters prompted controversy by emphasizing the fact that the Roseanne Conner of 2018 is a Trump supporter, much like the real-life woman who plays her. And this publicity worked. On Mar. 28, over 20 million people tuned in to see how the quintessential white, working class family was adjusting to life in the late 2010s.
The answer? Well, aside from some modernized issues and the questionable resurrection of Roseanne’s husband who was killed off in the original series finale (playfully addressed in the premeire when Roseanne awakens startled next to him and exclaims “I thought you were dead!”), the Conners are pretty much stuck where they started. Roseanne never became a successful writer, and neither has her daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert, “The Talk”), who has moved back into her parent’s house with her smart-mouthed daughter Harris (Emma Kenney, “Shameless”) and her shameless son Mark (Ames McNamara, newcomer). This lack of progression from the original show both highlights its flaws while feeding into its assets. The dialogue structure of zingers and tropes simultaneously dates the show while also reaching out to viewers with its nostalgia. Despite all this, nostalgia and plotholes aren’t what got millions of people talking about one half-hour sitcom.
Before delving into the politics that are inseparable from the “Roseanne” reboot, it’s worth noting that the show excels when viewed just as a form of entertainment. Though updated to fit its new time period, “Roseanne” still carries the charm of a 20th-century sitcom that remains absent from most contemporary shows. And honestly, it is pretty funny. Yet as nice as it would be to separate the politics of the show from its ability to entertain, that is just not possible.
The primary issue comes with the titular character. It is fair to argue that art can be separated from its artist, but that’s pretty hard to do when the art is modeled and named after its artist. Over the past few years, Roseanne Barr has done some truly despicable things. She has tweeted about unfounded conspiracy theories, made multiple problematic remarks and participated in a troubling photoshoot. Some say that in the reboot, Roseanne plays a sort of new Archie Bunker character. Yet the purpose of Archie Bunker was to shock audiences of the ’70s and start meaningful conversation about the groups and issues “All in the Family” addressed. Roseanne being a white, female Trump supporter just isn’t that shocking, especially after the white female vote went to Trump. And rather than starting conversation on the issues of political polarization that Roseanne addresses, her character reaffirms this behavior.
That’s not to say that Roseanne Conner is some sort of crazy alt-right warrior. There are moments in the show that fight back against how most people believe a Trump supporter would act, like in one stand-out scene when Roseanne’s grandson wears bright colors, sparkles and dresses to school. Yes, she questions his choices, but she engages in meaningful conversation with him about why he wears the things he wears, and then goes on to offer her unwavering support. It’s a sweet moment, but not one that can redeem “Roseanne” for the laundry list of contemporary issues it attempts to tackle.
While this trend does not continue into the second and third episodes, the premiere episode of the reboot is saturated with political commentary. Roseanne has exiled her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf, “The Big Bang Theory”) for being a Hillary supporter, and when the two reunite, Jackie shows up in a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, because of course she does. Young Mark’s fashion choices start a conversation on masculinity, while the day-to-day problems of a middle-class family are peppered throughout the show. And, of course, Roseanne’s Black granddaughter makes a brief appearance, because this show has everything the contemporary viewer wants, including a token minority!
“Roseanne” may be a difficult show with an even more unfavorable star, but it is wrong to say that conservative figures like Roseanne Conner have no place in entertainment. And if some people truly enjoy seeing their favorite character back on the small screen, nobody has any right to demonize them for that. But we can’t trick ourselves into thinking that “Roseanne” is a groundbreaking political sitcom, because while it addresses timely issues, it certainly doesn’t do it very well. Instead of bringing forth unifying topics and profound commentary, “Roseanne” is reaffirming the toxic American climate that fosters the idea that “my way is the right way, and anyone that questions me is stupid and wrong.” The show trivializes an important conversation, and while Roseanne and her sister may be able to reconcile their differences, the show they exist in is only further tearing the rest of us apart.